On the Exodus

This is the d’var Torah I gave at the Reconstructionist minyan in Jerusalem on January 31, 2015. Enjoy:

Almost two years ago, I approached a very wise classmate of mine with a simple question. “How do I change the world for the better?” She taught me how to form a group, how to protest, and how to get media coverage. She ended our meeting by telling me that I needed to find faith. Me, the emphatic rationalist, the atheist leaning realist that I am, dismissed this as shtus, as garbage. But, for the last two years, I have not stopped asking myself why she said this. And this brings me to the story of the Exodus, the story of the Jewish faith and of the Jewish people.

The Exodus is our central defining tale, the reference point for God’s covenant with the Jewish people and our faith in God. It is the story of a young man raised as a prince in the king’s palace, receiving the finest education, wearing the nicest clothes, eating the best food. Then, one day, he runs away from his life in the capital of the empire to live in the desert. Moses and the Hebrew slaves then work together and ultimately walk out of Egypt, into the sea, and into the wilderness together as a free nation.

The Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman describes the Exodus in terms of the royal consciousness versus the prophetic imagination, as empire versus freedom. The Exodus is our ultimate tale of the mindsets of empire versus freedom, Pharaoh versus Moses and God.

But before entering into that conflict, it must be said, empire and freedom exist in every human being, in every society, in every time. Both are necessary, both are good. But sometimes, one dominates the other. Sometimes, to borrow a metaphor from Heschel, the pendulum of our lives swings back and forth between empire and freedom, between the head and the heart, between reality and dreams, and it becomes stuck. It is in those times when the balance must be redone. The Exodus is a story of dramatically swinging the pendulum from empire, Pharaoh, to freedom, Moses and God.

Empire is always worried and anxious about having enough. For empire, there is always an immediate unfulfillable desire, and any act, no matter how cruel, is justified. Pharaoh, a slave to his own fears, enslaves the Hebrews because he is afraid of them potentially acting as a fifth column for a possible invading army. Pharaoh, living in the rich and fertile Nile delta is so anxious about food that he forces the Hebrew slaves to build two cities of storehouses to accumulate more and more. Empire suffers in the narrow space of the mind.

Freedom lives in the open space of the heart. Freedom is free from those anxieties and is free to trust in the world. It is this revolutionary freedom from surpluses and mass accumulation that Israel must learn in the wilderness to reach the promised land. This lesson began immediately with mana, about which it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack, each gathered according to what he could eat.” This lesson in satisfaction continues with enough sweet water being found and enough fresh meat being eaten. Freedom will not commit acts of injustice to satisfy even the most rational fears. The midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, facing death for saving infant lives, act with righteousness anyways. The text tells us they risk their lives because they revere God.

God, for empire, is controlled by empire, chained to the empire like an agunah. This was taken to its extreme in Egypt, where Pharaoh actually was god. Pharaoh made the sun rise, the Nile flood, and the crops grow. Pharaoh and his priests are in absolute control of the universe. There is no room for the unknown, for mystery, because the empire deals exclusively with what is empirical, what can be known, and the empire controls all that is known. Murdering mystery, reducing and rationalizing existence, and claiming total control is the underlying evil of empire, wherever and whenever it shows up. Whether it is sacrifices in Solomon’s temple to control the divine, some Israeli politicians claiming that Israel can do no wrong because it has God on its side, or an American president claiming ‘God bless America’ as an unquestionable fact.

God, for freedom, is wildly free. The God of the Exodus is a God who can choose the slaves over the slave owners, a God who responds to any attempt at knowing God with a deflective tautology. Moses asks God for God’s name. God replies, “I am that I am.” Moses tries to pigeonhole God into revealing God’s self to Moses and God replies, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” The God of the Exodus seems to be determined to prove to Pharaoh, the empire, and everybody, that any perceived total control over the workings of the universe is a dangerous illusion.

Empire is the known, the rational, the possible. Empire is static because it hates and suppresses imagination. Empire lives in its own fears and desires. Freedom imagines a world free from fears and desires. Rabbi Shai Held, in writing about Heschel, notes that empire commoditizes and objectifies existence to its own insatiable desires, using language like ‘natural resources.’ In the process, empire commoditizes itself, mechanizes itself, hardens its heart, and is indifferent to all choice, using phrases like ‘human resources’ and ‘following orders.’ Freedom sees mystery in the world, and does not dare attempt to limit God’s freedom. As Brueggeman notes, empire domesticates the vision of humanity by asking the question, ‘Is it possible?’ Freedom is not concerned with this question. Freedom has faith in the impossible. Faith, I’ve found, is believing, oftentimes irrationally, that if one walks toward freedom, one will be joined by our God of freedom. The God who Dr. King called, “The power that can make a way out of no way.” And who Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan called, “The power that makes for salvation.” With this faith, empire’s depressing stranglehold of reality and suppression of dreams melts away, and new life springs and righteousness flows like a mighty stream.

History is the story of new life through faith in the impossible and the irrational. The story of empires collapsing and dreams thriving. How could a tiny Indian lawyer rally a divided people to love the greatest empire in the world into leaving the richest land in the world as friends? How could thirteen disjointed agrarian colonies take on the mighty empire and begin a new project based on the principles of democracy and equality? How could a group of slaves march out of Egypt and into the desert? Was it rational for a young carpenter and a few friends to take on the powerful moneyed priests of Herod’s temple? Was it rational for an orphan to overthrow the establishment in Mecca? Was it possible in 1897 that a group of stateless, landless, powerless Jews could one day have a sovereign Jewish homeland? Their leader tried to distance his idea from the irrational, saying, “If you will it, it is no dream.” I disagree! Mr. Herzl, do not diminish Zionism. It was a dream, a hope, a tikvah, and it still is for so many of us. Impossible dreams are willed into existence throughout history. Faith in the unknown and sheer force of will is what allowed the Jews to leave the shtetls for the promised land. Faith is what allowed the Hebrews to walk into the sea and emerge in joyous song in the wilderness. Taking that first irrational step away from empire and toward freedom is what faith and the Exodus mean to me.

In the past two years, since meeting that student, I have protested, been arrested, lobbied aggressively, educated and registered voters, and gone into Palestinian territory several times to pursue peace. Every time, for weeks before, my head, my empire, screams at me to not do it. Don’t go, you’re an idiot, you’re a fool, you’ll be hurt, targeted, marginalized, ignored. The emperor Solomon yells at me from the temple mount, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Empire demands that nothing will change, that my actions do not matter. But my heart dreams for a world of peace, when the last, the least, and the lost will be cared for, when the lion will dwell with the lamb, and nations will not know war anymore. So, every time, after my heart allows my mind to make a few safety decisions, in the tradition of our ancestors, I irrationally walk into the sea with the faith that I will come out on the other side a freer man, singing joyously, deeper into the reverent wilderness, one step closer to the promised land. I know many of you know this faith that I’ve spoken of, and I look forward to hearing your stories over lunch. Shabbat Shalom.